As a transportation professional, I’ve long understood the benefit of giving people access to real time bus arrival information. But until this past year, little did I know firsthand what a joy it would be for me, a regular bus rider, to use such a system myself.
Not quite one year into the launch of the new system in the Greater Portland area (the Southern Maine Transit Tracker (SMTT) got its start last June, I checked in with other riders as well as transportation officials about how they like it.
I actually got to test the system before its official launch, first trying it one icy morning a year ago. Forget the (less reliable) printed schedule. What a treat, instead, to stand at a stop, pull up the website on my smartphone – and see my bus was on approach!
Waiting in a state of uncertainty, frustrated or anxious about when a bus is ever going to arrive, is hard on regular riders and can keep others from trying the bus altogether. Bus-tracking technology like the Transit Tracker, which uses GPS to accurately predict when a bus is coming, reduces that critical “time cost” for riders. In larger cities with frequent public transportation service, this information is less important because another bus or train is likely coming along in just a few minutes. In places like Maine, however, where the bus may only come every half-hour or even hour, the technology is especially important to support ridership.
“I love seeing if I have time to pop in a store before heading to catch the bus,” Metro rider Jeanine Bischoff said, “but mostly, it’s just nice to know where the bus is and when it will arrive when I’m standing there at a stop,” Bischoff, a Portland resident who rides the bus to work at the Sierra Club every day, checks the SMTT website from her phone.
Ben Donahue, who lives in South Portland, shares a car with his wife so he occasionally takes the Route 21 bus to his job at Portland law firm Hallett, Zerillo & Whipple. “I use the texting option to see how close the bus is before I head out,” he reported. “Overall, it works well for me. Sometimes the bus comes a couple minutes after the texted time, but that’s much better than too early.”
Donna Tippett, a transportation planner who helped start the program and still consults on the system for South Portland and Casco Bay Lines, reminds riders that it isn’t perfect. “You still should get to your stop 3 to 5 minutes before the predicted arrival time,” she said. “Given the ebb and flow of traffic and delays in data transmission, the system can never be 100 percent accurate.”
The tracker system isn’t just for riders. It’s also useful for staff. And for the most part, employees at South Portland and Metro are, like the riders I talked with, pleased. They point to its benefits for day-to-day operations and for improving efficiency.
“I use it all the time to keep tabs on our buses and make changes or add a bus when needed, even from home,” said Art Handman, director of the South Portland Bus Service. “It was sleeting this morning, and I checked at 5:30 to make sure there were no delays. Sure enough, there was the 24A, right on schedule.”
Naturally, there have been a few bumps in the road. For instance, the two new buses South Portland bought for its fleet this winter lacked a connector that allows them to link with transit tracker hardware. Until the manufacturer could send a technician to South Portland to install and test the equipment, the bus service used those vehicles only as a last resort. Also, although Casco Bay Lines are part of the network, the system for ferries has required additional tweaks so won’t officially launch for riders until early this summer.
The Portland area is not the first to introduce transit-tracking technology in Maine. The oldest – and the state standout – is Downeast Transportation’s Island Explorer bus service that serves Acadia National Park and the surrounding communities. The Explorer’s Tracking system was introduced a full 15 years ago and is actually just one part of a robust set of coordinated applications that use radio, landline and cellular technologies. For example, operators can also track electronically the number of passengers boarding at different locations in order to add buses to a route if needed.
“Good system design, quality service and convincing folks that transit is a better alternative than their car have been such a success over the years that we’ve more than tripled the number of our buses and quadrupled the number of riders,” said Paul Murphy, general manager of the Island Explorer. “We carried almost 600,000 passengers this past year.”
Still, it’s the Southern Maine Transit Tracker that public transportation officials across Maine are watching, with an eye to what they may want to do – and can afford – in their own regions. Bangor’s Community Connector is soon to put out what’s known in government lingo as an RFP, or Request for Proposals, for an assortment of GPS technology options. The idea is to roll out the system gradually, over several years, based on rider priorities and funding. In the meantime, providers like the Connector and Lewiston-Auburn’s CityLink diligently update their Twitter feeds with any bus delays.
Personally, I was thrilled to check my computer just now and see I had time to start a load of laundry before running out to catch my bus.
Sarah Cushman, a sustainable transportation consultantand former master-certified auto mechanic, is always looking for sensible solutions to help folks save money and get around comfortably via public transportation, sharing vehicles, on foot and by bicycle. Contact her at[email protected]